Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Genre: Drama and Musical Running Time: 2 hrs. 6 min.

Release Date: June 6th, 1942 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Michael Curtiz Actors: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Richard Whorf, Irene Manning, George Tobias, Rosemary DeCamp, Jeanne Cagney, Frances Langford




ong-retired George Michael Cohan (James Cagney) has just debuted his triumphal return to the stage in “I’d Rather Be Right,” a performance in which he portrays the President of the United States (Roosevelt). While some of the critics adore it, others pan it; but Cohan is most concerned about how the government will respond to the piece. And sure enough, mere moments after the show, a telegram arrives, insisting that Cohan present himself to the White House for a very important meeting.

As George sits down with the U.S. leader (a strangely monotonic, bellowing rendition, as if every word must be stressed for its importance), he recounts the story of his life and his rise to fame. It all began some 60 years ago in Rhode Island, where his Irish-American father, Jerry (Walter Huston), performs at an opera house. He rushes home to his wife, Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp), just barely missing the birth of his son, who is nearly christened “George Washington,” thanks to Jerry’s unflappable patriotism and the coincidental date: the 4th of July. As soon as the boy can stand up, he’s thrust into show business, along with his cherub-faced little sister, singing, dancing, and playing instruments in various Vaudeville routines. When he’s 13, George is terribly conceited and overly sensitive, going so far as to ruin the family’s chances at a contract in Philadelphia, forcing them to continue traveling across the country as “The Four Cohans,” appearing wherever they can.

Once he’s an adult (actually, only 17, which is quite a stretch for the 43-year-old Cagney), his versatility grows, while his confidence swells to even grander proportions – which he uses to woo starstruck Broadway hopeful Mary (Joan Leslie). But his headstrong, presumptuous attitude continues to get his entire family into hot water, frequently losing opportunities for financial stability. George then rushes about trying to sell his songs to music publishers and his plays to stage producers, to no avail, since he has alienated and offended virtually every moneyman in the country.

Not unlike William Powell’s Ziegfeld (from 1936), Cohan is portrayed as something of a con man, manipulating acquaintances (including Sam Harris [Richard Whorf] and Schwab [the inimitable S.Z. Sakall]) and getting very lucky in coercing people into funding his projects. Cohan’s achievements might make for an apt persona for a theatrical biography, but he’s not a wholly likable character. And he’s never forced to redeem himself or to undergo an epiphany concerning his behavior; in fact, his rudeness and tactlessness prove to be tools for propelling his successes, rather than nourishing further hardships. This creeps into the romance too, painting Mary to be a sensationally generous person, which only makes Cohan more disagreeable.

Nevertheless, the film is primarily a splashy exhibition of Cohan’s most popular stories and lyrics and music (upbeat yet jingoistic arrangements). Despite numbers by Irene Manning (as Fay Templeton) and the other Cohans, Cagney is the highlight. His tap-dancing skills are absolutely magnificent, exerting seemingly limitless energy to handily surpass his peers (especially when it comes to the title tune). It’s almost a shame when screentime is devoted to the other talent (and large choral sequences), since Cagney’s vigor is unmatchable. Eventually, toward the finale, the merrymaking is replaced by notes of darker subjects, including Cohan’s drama “Popularity,” which fails spectacularly; the sinking of the Lusitania; and the U.S.’ entry into World War I. But true conflicts for George are unsubstantial; his downs are far less frequent than his ups. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” might be an educational summary of Cohan’s life, but its entertainment value – outside of the musical sequences and the sentimental yet moving parting shot (actually, one of the greatest of all movie endings) – is limited.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10